By Pam Martens: November 28, 2012
Apparently news travels slowly from Gotham to Omaha. When Warren Buffett, the legendary investor and so-called Oracle of Omaha appeared on the Charlie Rose show on PBS Monday evening and praised the idea of Jamie Dimon as the next Treasury Secretary, he sounded less oracle and more out-of-touch cheerleader.
Buffett was making the media rounds with Fortune’s Carol Loomis, who has written a glowing book on Buffett, Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2012. When asked by Rose what message it would send if President Obama appointed Jamie Dimon as the next Treasury Secretary, Buffett had this to say:
“I think Jamie Dimon actually would be, I think he’d be terrific, because if we did run into problems in markets, I think he would actually be the best person you could have in the job and I think the world leaders would have confidence in him.”
Perhaps Buffett has not yet heard that JPMorgan Chase, the firm at which Dimon sits at the helm as Chairman and CEO, has been under serial assault by regulators on multiple continents. As we reported one week ago, JPMorgan Chase has shelled out $16.1 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) for legal expenses over the past three years and has been named in dozens of lawsuits that are still pending. The firm is under a criminal probe by the U.S. Department of Justice related to billions in trading losses on insured deposits in the FDIC insured part of the bank (the London Whale mess); it is under investigation in both Canada and the U.S. for potential involvement in the rigging of the global interest rate benchmark known as Libor; and a Federal regulator that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, has sued JPMorgan in Federal Court alleging fraud. As we earlier reported:
“…JPMorgan’s lawyers are racking up huge amounts of billable hours from a lawsuit brought in Federal Court by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) where JPMorgan – prior to any acquisition of Bear Stearns or Washington Mutual, is charged with fraud and aiding and abetting fraud under the common law of New York State in the sale of pools of mortgages to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were placed into government conservatorship due to billions in losses from defaulting mortgages.) In that case, JPMorgan served as the lead underwriter for 30 out of the 103 securitizations at issue, and for 27 of those it also served as sponsor and depositor. In other words, it had asymmetric knowledge of every phase of the securitizations in which it is has tried to convince a Federal court of its ignorance.”
Just what we need is a Treasury Secretary who has no time for the business of the country because he is sitting for criminal and civil depositions for the next four years.
What about Buffett’s suggestion that “world leaders would have confidence” in Dimon? World leaders, like the public, have no confidence in Wall Street or any Wall Street executive. That’s just a fact of life whether you live in Omaha or Oshkosh, London, Frankfurt or Tokyo.
Echoing that view, former Senator from Delaware, Ted Kaufman was interviewed on Fox News and said “the idea of Jamie Dimon for Secretary of Treasury would drive most Democrats crazy.” He added that the London Whale episode at JPMorgan showed that Dimon’s “bank is too big for even him to manage.”
Maybe Buffett simply has some odd mid-western values that demand that if you can’t say something nice, say something crazy. Or maybe he knew he was going to be making small talk and posing for photos with Jamie Dimon at a book party that same evening at The Lambs Club. (“Hi Jamie; Charlie Rose just asked me on national TV what I thought about the President naming you Treasury Secretary and I said it was the worst idea since the Edsel. But thanks a bunch for coming to my book party.”)
This is not the first time that Buffett has used his bully pulpit to run damage control for a big Wall Street firm. In fact, he’s taking it to an art form. During the 2008 crisis, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway invested $5 billion in Goldman Sachs and Buffett said very nice things about the firm. (Monday night, Goldman’s CEO, Lloyd Blankfein was also at the book party.)
Then there was the not so happy affair with Salomon Brothers in the 90s. After Buffett plunked down a big confidence boosting investment in the firm, Salomon was embroiled in charges of attempting to rig a Treasury note auction. Key executives resigned and Buffett had to actually step in as interim Chairman to save the firm. Here’s how he explained that in his famous Berkshire Hathaway letter to shareholders:
“Last June, I stepped down as Interim Chairman of Salomon Inc. after ten months in the job…The firm’s problems were not only severe, but complex. At least five authorities — the SEC, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the U.S. Treasury, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice — had important concerns about Salomon.”
John Gutfreund sat at the helm of Salomon at the time and was forced to resign. I wonder if Buffett had been cornered in a television interview to give his thoughts on Gutfreund, if it would have also been a glowing review.